Should drug addiction be treated as a health problem or a criminal justice problem? This is the question students should be asking themselves as the Nov. 6 elections draw near.
On the ballot this year is State Issue 1. The core of this amendment, in summary, will reclassify the lowest level drug possession and lower charges from a felony to a misdemeanor, and the money saved from less incarceration would be spent on drug treatment programs and programs for victims of crimes. Trafficking and drug dealing will remain a felony; any amount of a substance can lead to a trafficking charge.
Currently, Ohio has the second-highest drug overdose death rate in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Ohio’s prisons are at 132 percent capacity, according to Ohio Department of Corrections. Issue 1 is a change that Ohio desperately needs.
The mental health community has known for years that prisons are not an effective means of treating substance-use disorders. If prison was an effective treatment option, we would not be seeing the prison overcrowding that we are now; 95 percent of incarcerated addicts will return to substance-use after their release from prison, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute.
While addicts typically do not gain sobriety from being incarcerated, they gain a felony record that makes it difficult to be employed. The cost of treatment is cheaper than the cost of prison. According to the Prison Bureau, it is an estimated $87.61 per day to incarcerate someone.
Similar legislation to Issue 1 has passed in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Utah. While these states have already begun to benefit from criminal justice reform and contrary to the apocalyptic predictions by those opposed to Issue 1, they have not seen a surge in crime.
For example, California passed Proposition 47 in 2014. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, two years since the implementation of Proposition 47, California has seen a drop in reoffense by 3.1 percent, arrest rate by 1.8 percent and prison population by 6 percent. It is estimated by the Legislative Analyst’s Office that the first year of implementation (2015-16) saved California $135 million in total prison cost.
Issue 1 is a bipartisan amendment for criminal justice reform supported by notable organizations and individuals such as Ohio’s American Civil Liberties Union, Ohio’s Education Association, Ohio’s Black Caucus, musical talent and Ohio native John Legend, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Democratic candidate for governor Richard Cordray.
The Ohio Black Caucus specifically has given significant support toward Issue 1. Opponents to Issue 1 see the amendment as a problem because it will take power away from judges, while supporters of the amendment see this as a positive change. Under the current system a judge has the discretion to decide if a person charged with only drug possession will be charged with a felony or misdemeanor. When judges have this discretion, minorities are typically the people who get charged with felonies. In the most recent census, African Americans made up 45 percent of the overall prison population in Ohio, despite making up just 14 percent of Ohio’s total population. Issue 1 will ensure that justice is truly unbiased and fair. For addicts, whether your charge is a felony or misdemeanor will no longer be decided by the judge who happens to be sitting in front of you—a judge who may have an implicit bias against your race, income or appearance.
Issue 1 will help provide treatment resources, improve justice for minorities and help alleviate our drug epidemic and prison overcrowding. Vote Yes on Issue 1.